Monday, December 22, 2008

Green amidst the white

Readers might have noticed an absence of tips on having a "Green Christmas" on this blog. That was partly an oversight (I got busy and the holiday sort of snuck up on me) and partly deliberate. There are a lot of sites out there offering advice on minimizing the harm from your celebrations, and really, the best thing to do is to consume less of the cheap plastic trinketry we ship by the container load every year at this time.

But I'm no Scrooge. I'm fond of this holiday and really enjoy spending time with my family. I have a tree in my house, and am fully cognizant of how bizarre this practice must seem to other cultures. The lights on it are the new LED variety, and the two strings it took to decorate the tree draw a total of 8 watts. That's less than the compact fluorescent in the lamp on the other side of the couch, and plenty to navigate the room during these long winter nights.

My main plan this year is for minimal travel. I'm going to make one trip to be with family and stay for a few days. No running around this year. Speaking of family, some of the members of my family have great ideas for the holidays. For some good holiday blog posts and great ideas, I suggest visiting My Web of Life, the personal blog of Jenni Boles. Like her, I've made decorations with my son and done all sorts of unimaginably wholesome things. But unlike me, Jenni has three kids and a husband all competing for her attention. And, together with her husband Steve (Full Disclosure: he's my cousin), she is also working on launching their new business,, which will offer people a choice of carbon offsets, much in the same way that we buy airline tickets today through sites like expedia.

This can be a difficult time of year for environmentalists. As you can see from the above photo, taking my compost out will require slogging through a couple feet of snow. The car-free life is challenged by the weather (it was -12 C when I left this morning). And there's no opportunity to connect with the earth through gardening, since the ground is frozen solid.

But I take inspiration from my composter, which continues to generate enough heat to keep converting my kitchen scraps into rich soil. Besides, with a warm parka, I'm comfortable in all but the most inclement of weather. The snow is beautiful, and it's also the season for tobogganing and cross-country skiing. So get out there, enjoy the winter, and turn down the heat so you've got an excuse to snuggle up under a blanket with a good book.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Green Gorilla

Mountaintop removal mining from a Southwings flight.
Photo © Jim Motavalli

Canadian journalist Peter Fairley started my day the right way by sending over a link to his latest blog post. Coal mining and electrical generation aren't exclusively tenant issues, but they are reasons why we make the changes to our homes and lifestyles that we do.

The video he blogged is an amusing piece of propaganda. While I'm not big on having a mystical shaman character as the source of wisdom, the video is an entertaining introduction to the effect coal mining is having in many parts of the United States.

For context, the video follows close on the heels of a much more entertaining video made public by the Natural Resources Defense Council. This video is excerpts from a speech delivered by Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, the fourth-largest coal producer in the U.S. He certainly comes across as a zealot in these clips, and I somehow doubt that his argument becomes any firmer when one hears the speech in its entirety. However, he's welcome to send it to me so that I can learn and revise my opinion. After all, wise people do change their position as information becomes available. But some of his statements dont' give me much hope that there's more substance to his pro-coal rant... such as his argument that the U.S. shouldn't be a leader on environmental issues because nobody has followed. He points to China as an example. He fails to point to all the other countries that have followed the lead of the United States (or lead the United States), including Canada and much of Europe.

I live in Ontario, Canada. I'm a long way from the mountaintop removal problems. Near my home, most of the massive mines are ripping away the Niagara Escarpment for limestone. I don't see coal mines very often. Jim Motavalli wrote an interesting piece in E Magazine a couple years back on mountaintop removal in West Virginia. Jim gave me permission to use the photo which is at the top of this page. Right now, E's archives are available to subscribers only, but both Jim and the magazine's editor, Brita Belli, very graciously gave permission for the text to be posted. It's hosted on my site, and you can access it here. If you enjoy it, then please consider subscribing to E.

Despite plenty of rivers and big nuclear stations, and an increasing number of wind turbines, Ontario is still heavily dependent on coal. According to the provincial energy ministry, about 18 percent of our elecricity came from coal in 2007. As I write this, 29,527 MW are being produced in Ontario. Based on the posted mix, that would mean more than 5000 MW from coal.

I think I'll go and make sure the lights are turned off upstairs.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Shopping locally, sourcing globally

I'm now a couple weeks into my car-free life. I'm walking more and, not surprisingly, buying more from neighbourhood stores. This is no great hardship. I live in a city. I live in a Chinatown. There's lots of fresh produce. Granted, a loaf of whole grain bread might necessitate a hike to a grocery store (there are three within a kilometre of my house, though). On the other hand, I can also get posh, organic artisinal bread from the bakery at the St. John the Compassionate Mission a couple blocks down the road.

So, I am certainly using less gas and creating fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Or am I? Because of the neighbourhood I live in, a lot of products are imported from China. Some things, like fruit juice, are hard to find. I bought apple juice for my son last week, and then noticed that it was imported from China. Think about this for a moment. We live in Ontario, which is covered in apple orchards. According to the Ontario Apple Growers, the province's orchards produce about 150 million tons of juice apples a year. I shudder at the thought of the energy wasted shipping apple juice to a major apple-growing region.

The local food movement has made people much more conscious of the distance their food travels. The 100-Mile Diet, by James MacKinnon and Alisa Smith certainly added a Canadian perspective, though I have my doubts about the feasibility of a city the size of Toronto feeding itself with that small an area. It's about 30 miles to the nearest farm. But their point is well taken.

Right now, I'm reading one of the latest additions to the library of books concerned with tracking the environmental and social cost of food and other commodities. In Confessions of an Eco-Sinner, Fred Pearce goes on a selective journey to figure out where his stuff came from and how it got to his local shops. It's a British book, so some examples will be less relevant to North Americans, particularly sections relating to fresh produce. But much of the book is relevant, and a good overview of just how global our closets and pantries have become.

The book is something of a travelogue, though Pearce frequently leaves out the colour that would really bring to life the people who grow and produce his stuff. In that regard, the book was a disappointment. But Pearce has travelled the world, and he does have fascinating stories to tell. The section on cotton made for a particularly compelling read.

The other shortcoming of the book is that it rarely presents a solution. After reading his section on coffee, for example, I'm left without a clear answer as to whether or not "Fair Trade" coffee really makes a difference. But the book is not about easy answers, it's about difficult questions, and he gives us the information we need to start our own journeys toward answers. In that regard, it's a valuable resource. And thus, it's going onto the Green Tenant bookshelf.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Car Free: Week One

Here it is, a week into my new, car-free life. What difference has it made?

I still got my son to school on time every day. We walked for nine of the ten trips last week. Each trip is 1.8 km. Because I work from a home office, this means that I did the walk 18 times for a total of 32.4 km. I feel healthier for it, and look forward to continuing. And yes, I do own good winter boots and a warm parka.

We normally try to walk, but with bad weather, dark evenings and my general laziness, there's a good chance I would have wussed out and picked him up in the car a few times. If my walking replaced four round trips, that means my new car-free lifestyle saved 14.4 km of driving. My old 2002 Focus wagon got 8.3 l/100km, so that means I saved about 1.2 litres of gasoline. Not a lot, but there were no major trips last week. According to the government's Office of Energy Efficiency, burning a litre of fuel produces 2.4 kg of carbon dioxide. So my walking prevented about 2.9 kg of carbon dioxide from enering the atmosphere. Not bad for a start.

The one day when we took transit, we did so because I had a bunch of errands to run. With a $9 TTC day pass, this was an easy thing to do. I just ordered my errands so they'd be in a big circle route, then took subways, buses or streetcars between them. It did not significantly add to the time it took to complete the errands. Not cheaper than driving, I expect, but it was fun to just grab whatever transit I wanted, whenever I wanted, wherever I happened to be, without having to think about having correct change. Now I know what metropass holders feel like.

So, no major hardships yet. I feel healthier and happier, and my stress level is a little lower.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Car free

This is a big step. I've gone car-free.

That's not to say I'll never drive again, or that a car won't be my occasional choice in terms of transportation mode. But I no longer own a car, and no longer have easy access to one. I won't be able to drive to my son's school if I'm feeling lazy, or drive to the grocery store (neither of these places is far enough from home to warrant driving).

To be clear, I like driving. I like it a lot. But it's an expensive hobby, an unnecessary luxury and one of the most environmentally harmful things I did.

One of the things I'll be doing with the proceeds is buying a bike. I want a bike anyway, so this seems like a good time. Nobody ever questions selling an old car to trade up to a new one, so why should anyone question trading it in for a decent bike (likely a used one)?

Sometimes I do need a car. There are events I need to attend for work that are very difficult to get to by public transit. And there will be times when I want to get out of town to a place that isn't accessible by bus or rail (or where it's very inconvenient). Right now, I'm debating the best option. I'd really like to sign up with something like Zipcar, but am still weighing the costs. Their rates seem to have gone up recently, and since most of my use would be for weekend getaways, I'm not convinced they're economical. The day rate isn't outrageous, but it only includes 150 km, and then it's 30 cents a kilometre beyond that. For multi-day getaways, renting a car might just be cheaper.

What I do like about Zipcar is the ability to grab one for an hour or two in order to run a bunch of errands. I also like that they have cars close to where I live (which none of the rental agencies do).

If there are people reading this blog who have used Zipcar or AutoShare (particularly in Toronto), please comment and let me know how it's worked for you.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Vertical gardening

Gardening is frequently a problem for apartment-dwellers. They're often limited to a few pots on a balcony. And indoors, where space is often at a premium, devoted gardeners often end up with a clutter of pots near the windows or the door to the balcony.

One solution is to get a plant stand. There are lots of them. I used to have a simple, collapsible one from Lee Valley. Really, any sort of shelf that lets light through every layer will do.

But thumbing through Green Living magazine this morning, my son stumbled upon a photo of a product that really could be a useful solution for green-thumbed high-risers. It's the living wall kit from ELT Living Walls. I haven't tried one of these out yet, so can't offer a decent review, but I like the idea.

The kits include HDPE (sturdy plastic) planting cells, all the hoses and stuff you'll need for watering (using a drip irrigation system) and a cedar stand. It's slim, 22" wide by 6" deep, so it doesn't use up much floor space. What it does use is vertical space. The triple kit, pictured above, is 6'6".

As I see it, this is a great idea. There are two problems. One is price. The triple kit costs about $400 (the single kit, which is one-third the height, is just over $200). A handy and creative do-it-yourselfer could probably work out something similar for less money. But if you don't want that hassle, then the price is perhaps not unreasonable. Besides, most apartment folk don't have a workshop in which to build such a thing.

The other problem is an aesthetic one, and it's easily overcome. The product is unfinished cedar. Cedar is great, because it's highly resistant to mold, mildew and rot. But unless you've got a really rustic look to your place, it's unlikely to fit with your decor. I asked the manufacturer, and they said there's absolutely no reason why you can't stain or paint the wood. Cedar is a resiny wood, so you'll probably want to apply a sealer first. But then, picture how the unit would look with a glossy black finish to bring some leafiness to your goth pad, or a smooth, pure white for your urban minimalist look.

If anyone out there has used one, please let me know about your experiences.

The company also sells various components (handy for the DIY folk) and parts for much larger green walls. They're based in Brantford, Ontario, and they have a full catalogue online.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A film I really like

I knew the basement window was drafty. I just didn't realize how drafty it was.

It's an older aluminum casement window, of the type with two single panes of glass on either side with an air space in between. And both sides can open, making them easier to clean. But the frame around one of the outer panes is coming apart. To get through the winter, I applied a generous bead of clear exterior silicone. It helped a bit.

What really helped was the plastic film I applied to the interior. To apply it, one must first warm the window frame with a hair dryer. I hadn't noticed any major leaks, but when I turned the hair dryer on, I could see a cobweb inside the window moving. Not a good sign. And I'd noticed it was cold around the window.

The whole process of applying the film -- I used a ClimaShield kit from Canadian Tire, which cost about $4 -- takes about half an hour. This is because you have to let the double-side adhesive set on the warmed frame for 20 minutes before hanging the film. And the film is a bit unwieldy. For a more complicated job, I might want an extra set of hands. But I did this one on my own with no problems.

It worked like a charm. No more drafts, and I could immediately notice a temperature difference around the window. I have no doubt that, on this particular window, the film will easily pay for itself this winter (almost on cue, it started to snow just after I finished getting it on).

We'll see how it lasts as the winter progresses, but right now, all indications are that this product is very worthwhile, cost-efficient and a really easy way to conserve energy, save money, and make a house more comfortable. Oh, and in case you're wondering, when my son came in, I asked him to look at the window and he couldn't see the film at all.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A nod to Salmon Poetry

I'm very happy. Today's mail brought my copy of Todd Swift's new poetry collection, Seaway. I've been looking forward to it for months, and can't wait to curl up with it this evening.

But what made me really happy was the discovery that its publisher, Salmon Poetry, sent it in re-used packaging. The padded envelope started its journey in Paris, France, likely carrying the manuscript of a hopeful poet. That brought the envelope to Ireland, and now the publisher sent it on to me, in Canada.

Publishers and booksellers get tons of envelopes and packages every year, and I'm always happy to see it being re-used. It's one of the reasons why I like Canadian booksellers McNally Robinson for online orders. I'm pleased that Salmon Poetry can be added to my list.

And best of all, the package contained poetry!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

More trash talk

First of all, I must commend the City of Toronto for its quick response. I left a message with one of the project communicators for the new garbage program, and she called me back within an hour. When I'm not calling from a major newspaper, that's a pretty fast response.

She explained the program and pricing very well and cleared up some of the concerns I raised in yesterday's post. But I'm still not convinced that the system is universally fair and that it doesn't discriminate against people who live in small multi-family buildings (that is, places with 2-8 apartments... the city has a different program for what it calls "multi-unit" dwellings, which are larger apartment blocks).

First, the garbage fee is not being applied to the water bill, it will be part of a new water and waste bill. Still a lousy deal for tenants who pay for all their utilities, but I recognize that a minority of people who live in apartments pay their water bills directly. Then again, isn't fair treatment of a minority one of those principles we're supposed to consider as a society?

Okay, so each building pays for garbage collection through its property taxes. Under the new system, each building will instead pay a garbage fee, based on the size of its container. That fee is given a $209 rebate annually. Why $209? Because it's the average amount paid for garbage collection in the city.

Where this breaks down, from my perspective, is that not all buildings are equal. Buildings with two or three apartments often have higher assessments and pay higher taxes. Which would mean that the tenants will, under the new system, end up paying for garbage collection twice. Once with the new fee and again because the $209 rebate won't fully offset the difference that they pay indirectly through property taxes.

Each building gets the $209 rebate once, no matter how many units there are, no matter how many families live there, no matter how many bins they have (you can have more bins, you just pay more).

The city encourages "bin sharing" to avoid extra fees. That's a good idea, and the reason why I'll be sharing the second-smallest bin with my neighbours. That bin will cost us $39/year after the rebate. But if I didn't have to share with my neighbours, I could use a bin half that size... no, I wouldn't pay half as much ($19.50), but instead would get a $10 rebate.

If I lived in the single-family house next door and generated the same amount of waste as I do now, I'd be getting a rebate. So would my neighbours.

So I have yet to get an explanation that really makes clear how this system is in the least bit a fair one. If one of the experts from the City of Toronto is reading, please do use the comments section to set me straight, if I've got this all wrong. I'd rather discover that I'm wrong than feel that the city isn't treating tenants in small buildings fairly.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

How Toronto's new garbage plan discriminates against renters

On November 1, 2008, a new garbage collection system came into force in Toronto. It’s part of a noble plan to reduce the amount of material going to landfill. Unfortunately, its implementation has been clumsy, and the program is highly discriminatory toward people who rent apartments in small buildings.

The city is sending out new garbage bins to all the buildings it collects waste from at curbside. For a single-family dwelling, it’s a sensible program. Get a small bin and you get small rebate. Get a larger bin, and you pay an annual fee, presumably because you’re sending more material to landfill.

Unfortunately, the city is charging based on the amount per building, not per residence. So, if the two single-family houses next door each generate the equivalent of one bag of garbage per collection (the volume of the smallest bin), they each get a rebate on their water bill. However, I live in a two-unit building and we are allowed one bin for the building. As a result, if each apartment generates one bag per collection, we have to pay a fee. In other words, the city will be charging each residence in my building a fee while giving a rebate to other residences on the same street that generate the same amount of waste.

This is patently unfair, and clearly discriminatory toward multi-unit dwellings. And, it’s worth pointing out, multi-unit dwellings tend to be more energy efficient and generally better for the environment. The city should be rewarding multi-unit dwellers, not punishing them.

But there’s one other problem with the new program. The rebates or charges are applied to the building’s water bill, not the property tax bill. Traditionally, charges relating to solid waste management are part of property taxes. In Canada, property taxes are usually paid by the landlord. Utility bills, on the other hand, are often paid directly by tenants. Shifting the cost of garbage collection to a utility bill means that, in many cases, it will be shifted to a cost borne directly by the tenants. And that amounts to a rent hike in addition to any allowable annual rent increase a landlord may charge.

That, and it’s a little hard to understand what garbage collection has to do with water and sewage.

Green Tenant will be seeking answers from city officials. Don’t turn to the pink tag line for help, as it’s just a call centre and has no answers. Do call them (416-392-2467) if you haven’t received a bin or pink collection tags, but be prepared for a very long wait. I was on hold for more than 30 minutes this morning.

Monday, November 3, 2008

How long is a tap root?

Most people hate weeding. Me, I kind of like it. Sure, it's repetitive and you spend a lot of time hunched over. But it's also meditative work, and can add a lot of good stuff to your compost (assuming your composter is hot enough to kill off weed seeds).

As I was turning soil to make new beds this autumn, I pulled up many huge weeds. I got to know which plants have shallow roots, deep roots, rhyzomes and tap roots. And some of them were impressive. Just look at the picture above of some grass that came up when I loosened the soil. Those roots just go on forever! For scale, the plant is on a 2x6 plank.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Tiling a bathroom with Fyodor Dostoevsky

I don't write novels. Dostoevsky didn't write home repair manuals. There are good reasons for both. Neither of us felt compelled to state our reasons. Thankfully, Mark Crick has pretty much taken care of it for both of us.

This morning's Independent includes excerpts from Crick's latest book, Sartre's Sink. It's a DIY manual written in the voice of characters from famous novels. I highly recommend you check out the article in the Independent.

I found the item titled "Tiling a bathroom with Fyodor Dostoevsky" particularly compelling. Somehow, it magaged to capture precisely how I felt the first time I tore out old tile (mind you, I wasn't using stolen tools...borrowed, perhaps, but not stolen).

Herewith, a very short excerpt:


Tiling a bathroom with Fyodor Dostoevsky

Tools: Hammer, Spirit level, Scraper, Tile cutter, Sponge, Wooden batten, Tape measure, Dust sheet

Materials: Tiles, Spacers, Tile adhesive, Tile grout

For the first time, Pokoroff now opened the bag of tools he had stolen from the tool shed at the back of his lodgings and cast on its aged contents a look of flashing rage. "To think that I have been such a fool," he muttered. He saw now that the bag contained not the tools of his landlady, but those of her gardener. "This is exactly the sort of trifle that could spoil everything."

Feeling crushed, nay humiliated, he caught up the gardener's sickle and plunged its rusty blade behind the tiles above the sink. Long age and humidity had weakened the glue that held them in place so that they easily came away, crashing into the sink and shattering with a great noise. Their removal revealed an ugly rectangular patch of ridged and hardened adhesive. Pokoroff scraped at this in an attempt to render the surface smooth, but the glue, so ineffective at holding the tiles in place, showed more resistance at clinging to the wall. Using a stabbing action the worker saw that little chips of the adhesive broke off, occasionally flying into his face, and in this way he gradually succeeded in levelling the most irregular ridges.

The old woman, as is the way with old women who leave nothing to chance, had left a sack for rubbish and Pokoroff now began filling it with the debris. The jagged edges of the broken tiles were sharp and when he saw that a crack had appeared on the surface of the basin, he flew into a rage. How could he have been so unthinking? He might easily have placed some covering over the basin to cushion the fall of the tiles. With bitter disgust he saw that he had also managed to cut himself and that blood was dripping from his hand. It had already splashed his shoes and the floor before he thought to hold the wound over the open refuse bag. The thick red liquid dripped onto the broken tiles where the drops stained their white surface red. He grew light-headed and for a moment it seemed to him that the tiles were smiling at this benediction, until he realised that this was no chimera. Half buried in the detritus, the widow's false teeth came as a disagreeable surprise. In his haste he had forgotten to clear the room. "Details, details," he murmured and, looking up, he saw the remains of the glass that had held the teeth mingling with the broken tiles in the sink. Reluctantly he recovered the gory teeth and dropped them into his pocket. He then wrapped his injured hand with a rag and watched as the white fabric turned red.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Final harvest

It's nearing the end of October, already past Thanksgiving. The weather forecast is for a low of -2C tonight. To me, that signals time to harvest the last of my crop.

This morning, I picked the last eight large tomatoes and enough cherry tomatoes to fill a large collander. I'm hoping the smaller tomatoes will ripen and be tasty enough to eat, or at least to cook with. The larger ones have been disappointing. They have a pulpy flesh that's unpleasant. So they'll go in the pot and get canned for use in sauces.

I then wrestled the triffid-like plants from the ground and stuffed two of 'em into my composter. The other two will have to wait until the first ones compost down a bit. They're sitting in an unused corner of the garden to wither. I also pulled up the last two tiny carrots and chopped the chard, which has gorgeous, rich colour. I didn't pull the roots out, in hopes that we might get just a little bit more before winter.

Now there's just a bit of cleanup, a bit more digging and some raking to do before the long winter (I'm a little worried about where to put all the seedlings come spring, given the size of next year's garden). Oh, and I'll gather leaves from the front to spread over the beds. They'll mulch down over the winter and provide some much-needed humus.

For now, though, I've got a few pounds of tomatoes ripening, a drawer half-full of carrots and enough chard for a couple more meals. All in all, it's been a good first season.

Friday, October 17, 2008

New beds are ready

I'm enjoying a quiet night in tonight. Why? Because I'm tired. Today, I finished preparing three new planting beds for the spring.

This has been no small task. It began late in the summer, my neighbours (David and Alison) and I decided a weedy tree needed to come down. Alison and her dad took down the top, then she and I spent a sweaty day getting the stump out.

This summer, I had great success with my first bed, which I hastily prepared after moving in back in June. The tomato plants are taking on triffid-like characteristics, as you can see from the photo above. The rainbow chard has been producing steadily and is delicious. We got a couple pounds of carrots, and the lettuces were delicious, if a bit short-lived this year. So, on the back of that minor success, I've decided it's time to plunge headlong into urban agriculture.

The backyard proved intriguing. The worst part was wrestling the tree roots out of the ground. That made the first bed (the one on the left in the photo below) the hardest. The second (on the right) was a bit of work because, much to my surprise, there was a path made of 2'x2' patio stones buried about 8" below the surface. And about 3" of crushed limestone below that. The two beds are about 25' x 4' with a narrow path in between, so I can tend them without stepping in the beds and compacting the soil. I added another 15' x 3' bed below my back deck, too.

I dug down 18-24" to loosen, turn and mix the soils. Then I added some humus (I've just found a non-peat alternative that I will use next time, as peat moss is far from environmentally friendly) and dug it in. Next, I spread 100 kg of sheep manure (many friends have already commented how much this sounds like my professional life) and raked it in. I figure some of the nutrients will work their way down over winter. I'll probably scatter leaves as they fall, as they make good mulch.

Then I moved two rose bushes to the base of the beds. With simple trellises, I'm hoping these will soon screen the shed and composter somewhat. I'll be planting garlic around the roses, as they're said to be good companions. I also planted strawberry plants that my dad gave me, now that he's decided to stop growing them, and in the bed closest to the back door put in an oregano and a sage. Hope they survive the winter. Will do the other herbs tomorrow and cross my fingers.

So, now I'm relaxing with a pleasant stiffness in my body, and can begin dreaming about spring planting.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Installing a programmable thermostat

My apartment has an antiquarian furnace, and I'm doing what I can to squeeze energy savings from it this winter. Earlier this month I replaced the furnace filter. My latest project was to install a programmable thermostat.

It's a simple way to eke out energy savings, particularly in northern climates. The idea is that you'll set the program to lower the temperature when you're asleep in your cozy bed at night, or out at work during the day. The savings at night are the more significant, and in an older house like mine, will probably equal about 1.8 percent for every degree celcius I drop the temperature.

So, if I drop from 20C to 16C at night, I should be looking at savings in the neighbourhood of just over 7 percent. The savings will vary depending on insulation and climate, and the scenario is different for people with heat pumps. But I expect a lot of renters are in my situation -- old, poorly insulated house with a big ol' gas or oil furnace. For more information, there's an interesting paper here by Andre Plourde, a professor at the University of Alberta.

A basic programmable thermostat costs about $30, though you can pay plenty more if you want something fancier. I bought mine when a $15 rebate coupon came with my Enbridge gas bill. So really, I'm out about 15 bucks for the thing, and should easily recoup the cost. And it looks a lot nicer than the old mercury thermostat.

How to install a programmable thermostat
This is surprisingly easy. Most older furnaces have a simple two-wire system and the wires are usually colour coded. Read the instructions that come with your new thermostat.

The first step is to slip off the cover plate of the old thermostat. It just slides off with a simple tug.

Notice the bubble of silvery liquid at the top. That's a glass tube filled with mercury. This is a hazardous material, so remove the thermostat with care and follow instructions from your municipality regarding proper disposal. In my city, one can bring them to a Community Environment Day or bring it to one of the city's hazardous waste depots.

After removing the cover, remove the screws holding the thermostat to the wall. These will probably be small flathead screws. Then unscrew the two wires from the terminal. Be careful not to let the tips of the wires touch. You may want to wrap them in electrical tape while you work.

Next, follow the instructions for mounting the new thermostat. On a two-wire system, each wire should be colour coded and easily screw into an appropriate terminal on the new thermostat. Then slide the face into place as per the manufacturer's instructions.

Programming the thermostat
My thermostat has four settings for weekdays and two for weekends. The idea is that you'll set it to lower the temperature when you go to bed, raise it just before you get up, drop it again when you go to work, and make the house toasty for your return home. On weekends, it's a simpler program to drop the temperature when you go to bed and raise it when you get up.

In my house, it's set for 16C overnight and 19C during the day, though I sometimes go up an extra degree first thing in the morning. I don't set it much lower during the day because I work from home (a simple two-program thermostat would have done me fine, but I couldn't find one).

Best of all, the new thermostat looks a lot nicer than the grotty old one. Being green is important, but aesthetics still count for something.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Furnace Filters

Replacing a furnace filter is, in most cases, very easy and very rewarding. It will improve the furnace's energy efficiency and improve indoor air quality.

I say "in most cases" because, well, some jobs are easier than others. Most furnaces have filters that come mounted in a handy cardboard frame. Here's an example of one, in case you haven't seen them before. Manufacturers suggest changing furnace filters monthly during the winter, and most are cheap enough that this isn't an unreasonable request. For these furnaces, you just slide the old filter out, note its size, go to the hardware store to buy a new one and then slide it in. Easy-peasey.

But not mine. Oh, no, nothing so simple for the Green Tenant. The furnace in my apartment was installed in 1984 and doesn't have the handy pre-framed filter.

For mine, one must buy a roll of fibreglass material and cut it to size. Still, it's not hard.

First, open the bottom compartment of the furnace (usually they just slide into place) to reveal the filter chamber. Then remove the carriage holding the filter. In this case, it was a simple matter of pulling the top edges in slightly, then sliding it out.

The filter on this model is held by clips on either side. They clip onto the mesh and are released by sliding (on this one, one side goes up, the other goes down). Then peel off the old filter. This one obviously hasn't been replaced in ages. Eeew.

Lay the old filter on the floor. Lay the sheet of new material over top, then cut it to size with an Olfa knife, box cutter or scissors.

Clip the new filter into the carriage, then slide the unit back into place. Follow any directions on the package (it might tell you which side of the filter to position facing in).

This won't make a 24-year-old furnace particularly energy efficient, but it will help the fan circulate warm air more easily. And your lungs will thank you, too.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Fresh tomatoes!

I know that many tenants either don't have land for gardening or have limited ability to add gardens to their yards. If you can negotiate a lease that gives you responsibility for landscaping, go for it. Most landlords will probably be happy if they don't have to worry about mowing the lawn or shoveling snow. And, let's face it, a vegetable garden looks better than weeds.

When I moved in, there were six-foot-high weeds in the back yard. This year, the goal was modest, a small patch down one side of the yard, in which to grow a few tomatoes, some lettuce and chard, and some carrots. It's gone well. The large tomatoes haven't begun to ripen yet, but the three smaller tomato plants have been producing lots of delicious fruit. The picture above shows what I picked this morning. To put this in context, I last picked the ripe fruit about four days ago.

Lately, I've seen some great ways for tenants to garden. One nearby house has three old cooking oil buckets as tomato pots. They sit on a narrow concrete barrier on the edge of the driveway. They're stable and don't interfere with the lawn (some landlords won't let you pull up the turf).

Pots and window boxes are great for many smaller plants, such as radishes, lettuce, beets, even blueberries. Some vines can grow from relatively shallow soil or very narrow strips of exposed soil, too. So you could grow zucchini or cucumbers up your front porch railing or a trellis by the side of your house, without having to dig anything up.

If you've used innovative techniques to garden your rental property, let me know down in the comments section. I'm always looking for new ideas.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Pressed for savings

I like coffee. It's one of my vices. But there are a lot of problems with coffee, too. To try and minimize my contributions to the woes created by coffee production, I drink fair trade, organically grown coffee whenever possible.

But energy and waste are other concerns. Coffee grounds and filters are easily dealt with. They can go into my composter, or to a municipal composting program such as Toronto's Green Bin. Metal filters reduce waste, too. But conventional coffee makers also use a lot of electricity and produce a lot of waste. With all their electronic components and their bulky plastic frames, a lot of material goes to a landfill whenever one breaks. And, as we've all learned the hard way, it's cheaper and easier to replace an entire coffee maker than it is to replace a cracked carafe.

A few yers ago, while visiting a cottage on Lake Huron, there was a power failure. Luckily, the place had a solar-charged battery bank for backup. Worked like a charm. At least until we tried to make coffee, that is. The coffee maker instantly drained the system, plunging us once again into darkness.

Just how much energy does a coffee maker use? According to the USEPA, a coffee maker draws 900-1200 watts. That's about as much as an iron, a toaster or a small portable heater. It's a lot of electricity. If your coffee maker stays on for just half an hour a day, that adds up to about 180 kilowatt hours per year. That's roughly equivalent to watching a big projection television for more than 1000 hours. Oh, and if you're measuring your carbon footprint, that's about 40 kg of carbon dioxide, based on the annual average from the Ontario grid.

So, what's the solution? Why, a coffee press, of course! Also known to many as a Bodum, these handy devices make far better cofee than to automatic drip systems. Because the grounds are suspended in hot water, they also use fewer beans per cup. For my morning brew, I throw in some grounds, pour in boiling water, wrap it in a thick towel (to keep heat in), wait five minutes, press the grounds down and pour a perfect, piping hot cup!

What are the energy savings? Assume one pot a day using a 1000-watt kettle, taking five minutes to boil. That's about 25 kWh per year. In other words, using a coffee press saves about 155 kWh of electricity a year, or 34 kg of carbon dioxide.

To be fair, I often toss my second cup in the microwave for a few seconds, bu that comes nowhere near the drain of keeping a coffee maker's heating element on for half an hour.

Best of all, I get a much better cup of coffee. We all have our priorities.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Autumn checklist

Winter is coming, and in Canada that means there's lots to do. I've got a long list of indoor projects to keep me busy in coming months, but some need to be done before the first frost. For now, I'll put aside my gardening projects (though they will be the focus this weekend). What do I need to do in order to keep my apartment cozy and my gas bills low this winter?

1. Replace the furnace filter.
The furnace is frighteningly 24 years old. The thought of how much gas it'll use scares me. But replacing the filter will make it run more efficiently and help with indoor air quality. This furnace uses a different kind of filter from the previous furnaces I've had, so expect a post on it in the near future.

2. Buy heavy, insulating curtains for the windows.
Even good windows let a lot of heat out at night. At best, they're R8, which is nothing when you consider that even a 2x4 stud wall holds R14 insulation (and new construction here typically has 2x6 stud walls with R20 fibreglass and often an inch or two of rigid foam at R6-8 per inch on the outside for the newest homes). Good, thick curtains can make a huge difference. Close them at night to keep the heat in, open them during the day (especially on south-facing windows) to reap the benefits of passive solar heating.

3. Do something about the front window.
The front window of my apartment is north-facing. The main panel is double-glazed, which is good. The lower, opening portion, however, has two single-glazed layers. Not terrible, but not great, and likely draughty. But my main concern is a beautiful stained-glass panel at the top. This will let a tremendous amount of heat out. Curtains are a good start, but not enough here.

I'll throw this last one out to any experts who read Green Tenant. I know that I could use a heat-shrinking plastic film. But what are my other options? I'm a tenant, so not in a position to replace the window. And I like the stained glass. It's pretty. Any great ideas out there?

Monday, September 1, 2008

Drying off

I was very happy that my new apartment came equipped with a washer and dryer. Really, social a person as I am, lugging clothes to a laundromat is not my idea of a fun way to spend a Saturday night.

So far, however, the dryer has only been turned on twice. And the plan is to avoid using it at all. Why? First, because it's unnecessary. A simple drying rack usually will do the trick. Might get a nicer one this winter, or two of them. My bedroom has big, south-facing patio doors, and thus is a perfect place for drying clothes (lots of free solar energy).

But this isn't all about being an environmentalist. I need to save money, too. If my dryer were fairly efficient and could do a load in 30 minutes, and if I did just 10 loads a month (factor in towels, sheets, kid's clothes, etc.), then using an average dryer would cost $30 a year, according to a calculator at this site. Not a huge sum, but every bit counts. Actually, it would cost more because my geriatric dryer takes an hour to do towels, and close to an hour for most clothes.

To be fair, drying racks can add to clutter in an apartment, and in small spaces, this can be a problem. But there are lots of options, from inexpensive floor models (available at most department stores) to fancier models, including some that hoist laundry up to the ceiling. Steve Maxwell pointed to this company in an article he wrote for the Toronto Star a couple years ago. I'll be including them in my research when I go shopping for a new rack this autumn. My existing one is bulky and has an inefficient design. Besides, sometimes a guy just needs a second laundry rack.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Goodbye, tree

Now I know that preparing the main garden bed is going to be hell. So many roots!

When I moved in, the backyard had a large tree, which meant there was almost nowhere with full sun. Not bad for sitting under, but not good for gardening. This created a dilemma: is the shade and carbon sequestration more important than fresh veg?

Our tree was, as a retired arborist described it, a weed tree. In about six years, it had grown to have a foot-thick trunk. Cutting it down would not mean the loss of a grand old maple or oak. And it would prevent some problems with overhanging branches in years to come. Plus there are still a couple large trees on the property.

It's not easy to figure out how much carbon a tree sequesters in a year. Somewhere between 20 and 40 pounds seems a reasonable estimate. This tree, however, has a very shallow root system, so in the long run, I suspect it would release a lot back into the atmosphere. And it wouldn't have a long life.

So, what might we save in carbon emissions? If we assume that my food consumption patterns are similar to those of an average U.S. resident, then 12 percent of my greenhouse gas emissions come from food. In other words, about 2 tons of GHGs are produced per year per household, just to ship food. The additional growing area could produce enough food for a person for a year, in theory, but I'm nowhere near being that confident in my gardening skills. But even if I can reduce food shipping by 5 percent, that's a tenth of a ton of GHGs cut from my share. Far more than the weedy tree would have sequestered.

Thus, a hot Labour Day weekend found my upstairs neighbour and I sweating away with shovel and axe. And once we've built the beds, we have all winter to plan companion plants and dream of fresh chard, tomatoes, beans, peas, maybe even corn and squash.

I should note that this is not a decision most tenants face. And it's one that should not be undertaken without careful consideration (and a check of municipal bylaws). But I rent half of a house, and landscaping is my responsibility under the terms of the lease. Also, this was not a valuable tree. I'm also in the unusual situation of having two good friends living upstairs, who also want to have a productive garden.

Oh, and getting the darn stump out took about four hours. I gained a new respect for trees, and my neighbours discovered the full richness of my vocabulary.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Essential bookshelf title

Homeowners have to tackle every repair by themselves (or hire someone to do it). One of the joys of being a tenant is that not ever repair is your responsibility. A leaky roof or crumbing wall is the landlord's to fix. But a lot of repairs can be done easily, and it can sometimes be more convenient or less stressful to just take care of them.

More importantly, a lot of repairs and maintenance issues are also important conservation measures. Whether it's fixing a leaky faucet, caulking around windows or installing a programmable thermostat, you are fully capable of doing it yourself and helping save energy, water and, if you pay utilities, money.

As a result, I always suggest that everyone should have at least one basic home repair manual. The one I've chosen to keep on my shelf is Do It Yourself: a step-by-step guide to fixing, building, and installing almost anything in your home. As with all such books, there's more than a renter will need, particularly for those who live in apartment buildings. But for those of us who rent houses, there are lots of minor repairs that need doing, and this book is the best general guide I've come across.

A very close second choice, in my opinion, is the Home Depot Home Improvement 1-2-3. It's a great book, but is American. As a result, the instructions do not take into account differences in Canadian building codes. The second edition had a section on Canadian code at the back, but that meant flipping back and forth. A new third edition is coming out soon, and we'll see if they've fixed this flaw.

To be fair, DIY is also a U.S. title. But the Canadian edition was adapted by celebrity handyman Jon Eakes. Knowing that he's gone over it carefully gives me extra confidence in its advice. It's not a perfect book, but I've found its instructions to be accurate and easy to follow.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Fix the Drips

Water conservation is a bigger deal than most people realize. Municipal water systems use a huge amount of energy. Enough, in fact, that they can be a city's leading source of greenhouse gas emissions (from the electricity used to run the pumps, treat the water, etc.). With aging infrastructure that can result in a water system leaking away a tenth of its water or more.

Dripping faucets can be fixed easily, and doing so will cut down on water waste and save energy too. Replacing the washers and O-rings wo
n't take long and isn't difficult. Here's how to do it for the type of faucet found in most rental bathrooms.
Tools: For this repair you'll need an adjustable wrench, a flathead screwdriver and a #2 Phillips screwdriver.

Step 1: Look under the sink for a shutoff valve. Turn to the right to turn off the water. Do this before taking the faucet apart. If you don't have a valve there, you'll need to turn the water off in the basement or ask your building
dent for help.

Step 2: Remove the small plate on top of the faucet. Remove the screw underneath.

Step 3: Remove the faucet handle and you'll see the valve. Use your adjustable wrench to unscrew it, then lift it out.

Step 4: Use your flathead screwdriver to remove the screw from the bottom of the valve. Then remove the washer. While you have the valve off, it's a good idea to change the washer and any O-rings. If you're unsure of the size you need, bring them to the hardware store with you, or bring the whole valve assembly.

Step 5: Put the new O-rings on and screw the new washer into place. Screw the valve back in, screw the faucet handle on, replace the cap. Turn the water back on. Wash hands.

Congratulations, you have now made a very important repair. This will save you, or your landlord, money. It will save the city money. It will conserve both water and electricity (especially if it was a hot water faucet). And it'll mean an end to those nasty rust stains that have been building up in your sink during the months your faucet was dripping.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Carbon-Free Homes

Photo courtesy Stephen Hren

Stephen and Rebekah Hren live the environmentalist's dream: Their home is carbon-free. Well, pretty much. The North Carolina couple fixed up an old house with a goal of getting it off fossil fuels. It's an interesting project, and one I wrote an article about for today's Globe and Mail. They wrote their experiences up in The Carbon-Free Home, a new book from Chelsea Green.

Much of what they did to their house is the sort of stuff that only homeowners can do, such as adding lots of insulation. But lots is also tenant-friendly, such as sealing cracks. One of the best ideas they had is to keep an "energy diary." That is, you look up the amount of energy each appliance consumes (including everything from lights to air conditioners, blenders, stoves, etc.) and then track how long each is on.

Do this for a week or two and you'll quickly see where the most electricity goes, and where you can easily adjust your lifestyle to most effectively save energy.

The book, which I enjoyed reading, is a great resource. It combines their own experiences with information about energy consumption and includes lots of projects that they've completed on their own house, as well as some that they're looking forward to tackling.

What makes the book tenant-friendly is a handy table right up front that lists a selection of projects. The table is a way to jump into projects fast, and shows difficulty levels and the relative value in terms of savings. But it also identifies which ones are tenant-friendly.

As for the carbon-free thing, I remain unconvinced about its feasibility in northern climates. Off-grid houses, whether the Hren's in North Carolina, or Anthony Ketchum's cottage in Ontario, tend to have wood-burning stoves for heat. An argument can be made that wood is carbon-neutral if harvested sustainable (new trees suck carbon in as it's released by burning the older ones), but that's only applicable over the long term. Also, despite newer, more efficient, cleaner-burning stoves, wood smoke still contributes to problems such as smog.

That said, these houses are really worth looking at. They might not be a complete solution to the world's energy problems, but if every house were as efficient, climate change would be much less of a behemoth to tackle.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

On Holiday

I know it's bad form to launch a blog and then go on holiday, but it's what I've done, all the same. After all, getting out of the city and into forests and fields is a healthy part of life, and a good way to remember some of the reasons why we try to live as non-invasively as possible.

Green Tenant will return next week with some handy tips on water conservation.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Gardening books for apartment dwellers

I've added a list of books that will be useful to renters. Today, you will find two new additions to the Green Tenant's Bookshelf. Both are gardening books.

The first is Food not Lawns. It's an urban gardening how-to guide and guerrilla gardener's manifesto. While it's not the best introductory gardening book, it offers suggestions that are really useful to apartment dwellers. In particular, it discusses vertical gardening (using window boxes, climbing vines and so forth) and devotes a good deal of space to the subject of finding a place to garden when you don't have a patch of dirt of your own (abandoned industrial sites, neglected municipal planters and so forth).

It also has a lot of gardening basics. It's not the best reference book for these, but it approaches the basics -- soil, water and so forth -- with a sincere, environmentalist approach and always with a DIY attitude. It also has a sense of humour, evident in the composting section, which includes a bevy of old "new age" recipes that involve, for example, stuffing some poor plant into a cow's horn and burying it in the ground over the winter. Most of the book, however, is earnest, and there aren't many gardening books that cater to the landless.

The other book really isn't for apartment-dwellers. Green Roof Plants is really better suited to people with expansive houses or commercial or industrial properties. It's a guide to creating low-maintenance green roofs. As such, it's probably best to check it out of the library to use as a one-time reference. Why? Because it's an excellent guide to the sort of drought-tolerant plants that will thrive in rooftop or balcony gardens.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A garden!

On June 1, I moved into my new apartment in Toronto. It's the lower two floors of a house. Thankfully, a couple of friends live in the upper apartment, making this place feel a lot more like home.

Needless to say, my project list is huge. But one of the first tasks was to plant a garden. Yes, the house comes with a yard, which means a place to grow flowers and, more importantly, veg! Soon, my son and I will be on the 100 yard diet, noshing on organic greens!

Okay, not quite. June is a little late for planting, even here, so the garden was my top priority (even before repainting the hideous, pinky-beige walls inside). I've gardened a bit before, and have a good stock of organic gardening books, thanks to a review I wrote for Green Living magazine over the winter. (See page 21 of the online edition.) Even with my little patch, the yard doesn't look great. But a few flowers do spruce the place up a bit.

Particularly inspired by How to Grow More Vegetables, I set my back into removing a two-foot deep pile of construction waste (clay, brick, bits of glass) and turning the soil for a 25-foot by 3-foot bed. The soil isn't great, so I added a little bit of black soil, a couple bags of sheep manure and some humus-rich material. I know this isn't all particularly green, but I was in a rush and, having just moved to the city, didn't have my compost heap going yet.

I put in four tomato plants, which as of late-July are well over three feet tall. Back in May, I picked up some mixed greens and rainbow chard at a farmer's market in Flesherton, Ontario, and I've also planted a hot pepper plant and lots of marigolds. My son and I had a pleasant afternoon planting carrots toward the end of June.

Today, the tomato plants are nearing four feet in heights, yielding well, and growing up the new fence our neighbour erected (photos soon). The rainbow chard is beautiful and delicious. The greens are peppery, and the carrots are coming along nicely.

Next year will see another bed of about 50 square feet added, and I'm almost looking forward to winter to begin the planting. Hopefully I can find the same source for the rainbow chard and salad greens seedlings next year. They've proven to be superb!